May 10, 2007

Sunny Skies for "110 in the Shade"

The big hit of the 1963-1964 Broadway season was a musical about a single woman who is getting on in marriageable years and sets her eye on a local guy. It was called Hello, Dolly! and it nearly swept the Tonys that season, went on for a seven year run, and was then revived on Broadway three times. Louis Armstrong turned its title song into an anthem and a top 10 record. A few months earlier, another musical with a similar theme but an altogether different style opened, it was called 110 in the Shade; it ran for 330 performances and I confess I'd never heard of it until the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival starring Audra McDonald.

That may be because 110 in the Shade, written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, who had previously done The Fantasticks, didn't produce any anthems or even any standards. But, as I discovered, Shade has a lovely score that calls to mind the open prairie lyricism of Aaron Copland. The show's boo
k, which N. Richard Nash adapted from "The Rainmaker", his play about a lovelorn woman in a drought stricken town, is well crafted. Director Lonny Price's production is thoroughly winning. Santo Loquasto's sets are gorgeous. And the supporting performances, especially those by John Cullum as McDonald's dad and, Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert as her brothers, are endearing. I've been seeing a lot of shows lately and this was the first time in a couple of weeks that I didn't sneak a peek at my watch to see how much longer it was going to go on.

Although she told the New York Times, that she hesitated about doing the show because of its old-timey quality (click here to read the article), it's no surprise that McDonald, a four time Tony winner who could have her pick of any show she wants to do, would find herself in this one. McDonald has made a career of lending her luminous talent to under-appreciated works. Her CDs are as likely to feature songs by Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Adam Guettel (Light in the Piazza) and her frequent collaborator Michael John La Chiusa (Marie Christine, Bernarda Alba) as those by Gershwin, Rodgers or Sondheim. And she brings an appealing earthiness to the role of the socially awkward Lizzie in Shade: letting loose her Juilliard-trained soprano on the show's big arias, nailing its comedic moments and infusing both passion and vulnerability into its dramatic ones.

As you probably know, McDonald's 62 year-old father Stanley died in a plane accident last week and she took just a couple of days off from previews to go home to California for the funeral. McDonald and my musician husband K share a mutual friend who said he thought the work would help her get through her grief. I don't know how many people in the audience at the performance K and I attended were familiar with the 110 in the Shade; many it, was clear had come primarily because they were willing to take a chance on anything McDonald wants to do (“I'd listen to her sing the phonebook,” I actually overhead one woman telling a friend.) And in the aftermath of her personal tragedy, they had come not only to be supportive but, if necessary, forgiving of any shortcomings in her performance. I couldn't detect any. It was a total triumph. And it's heart-wrenchingly sad that her dad can’t be here to share it with her.

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